March 8th was International Women’s Day (IWD), which seems appropriate after watching Kathryn Bigelow make Oscar history last weekend (rock on …). The IWD celebrations first started in 1910-11 and were recognized by the United Nations in 1975. Many countries around the world — China, Russia, Vietnam (not the U.S.)--celebrate IWD as a national holiday. Not surprisingly, Nicholas Kristof’s N.Y. Times blog “On the Ground” noted it this week.
Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn — the first husband/wife team (and first Asian American) to win a Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting — have received well-deserved publicity for their co-authored 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Half the Sky tells enthralling stories about mothers and young women who became successful farmers and community organizers after receiving tiny micro-entrepreneur loans (and surviving violence and rape). Kristof’s New York Times column consistently hammers away at eliminating abuses against children (e.g. a recent column reflects on a ten-year-old girl in Yemen who successfully received a divorce from an abusive husband), and the political and social injustices against women.
From hunger, to education, warfare, and child sex trafficking, IWD has many issues to deal with, publicize and raise funds for. I appreciated a link on the IWD site to the World Food Program’s “Bloggers Against Hunger” program. They produced a persuasive video to raise funds for hunger and to show how hard women work to eliminate it.
With Hillary Clinton as head of the State department, and Kristof and WuDunn writing and speaking consistently about women’s issues around the globe, this year and next should both be well-publicized International Women’s Days. My university’s Gannon Center for Women and Leadership has formed a reading group around Half the Sky and is bringing WuDunn in to speak this month. With these events, director Dawn Harris hopes that students “will become more aware and interested in reducing the oppression of women in developing countries” and develop into “future leaders [who] work on human rights issues.”
The links between women’s issues and ending the wars in the Middle East have been made by Kristof, WuDunn and other writers. The biggest threats to some traditional Middle Eastern values may not be sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, but Sheryl WuDunn, Kathryn Bigelow or 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. These women’s lives, however, attest to the fact that eliminating oppression is often a risky and exhausting process that demands perseverance.
Wangari Maathai’s inspiring ‘Mama, Phd’ story is documented in the recent independent film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.Taking Root covers the challenges that Maathai has gone through as a mother, a scholar and an activist--spending three days in jail after divorcing her husband, earning the first PhD by a woman in East Africa, founding the Green Belt movement (planting 30 million trees lost to deforestation), and standing up to political corruption in the Kenyan government.
The film is comprehensive and well done, but I was a bit disappointed that Taking Root did not give us a little more information about Maathai’s family life. (I'm guessing that she was not comfortable with these issues on camera.) Maathai had the courage to allow her ex-husband to raise her three children while she worked and traveled with the U.N. to build a sustainable Kenya -- she visited her children when she could. I feel certain that the pain she felt in leaving her children to accomplish her work was one of the motivating centers of her life.
The complexities of Maathai's life and the lives of the women in Half the Sky reenforce the validity of the African proverb Clinton popularized, "It takes a village to raise a child..." Take a minute to honor the working women in your life this week…